A walk to remember in Karachi

Moving to a new city can be quite daunting as you learn to navigate your way across different areas. But moving to a city you are already very familiar with is a completely different scenario. The main reason is that you begin to start taking things for granted.

Here is why: It is the simple fact that you have visited so often and believe that you have already seen everything there is that the city has to offer. You begin to feel this need to travel to other places apart from your own home town.

That is exactly what happened to me until I saw a post on Instagram about the Heritage Walk Karachi. Initiated by the Pakistan Chowk Community Center (PCCC), the walks are held every Sunday morning from December to March to promote the heritage of Karachi.

At this point, I was extremely pumped up to go for a walk as I had never had the chance to explore most of the Old Town (Saddar). I personally didn’t have any idea about the history behind the architectural gems that lye hidden amidst the chaos of these narrow alleys.

The heritage walk was a trip down the memory lane of so many historical areas and alleys I never knew existed.

My journey began when I woke up at 7:00am, which was surprisingly not a struggle for me on a Sunday morning, particularly because I was so excited.

I couldn’t help but wonder what hidden mysteries were lying just within my midst. I picked up my bag that was already packed with my essentials and of course, my camera.

As I set off with my friend in a Careem (who else would drive us at 7am on a Sunday morning?), I wrapped my shawl tighter as it had suddenly gotten chilly.

I suddenly did a mini jump when I heard the sound of thunder. My friend and I looked at each other with the same expression that read, “Oh no, don’t tell me this walk is cancelled”.

As we reached Pakistan Chowk surprisingly quickly (thanks to no traffic!), the clouds were still dark. None of the other attendees had shown up and I was fearing even more that the walk would be postponed.

We bought our tickets from our guide and suddenly, I felt splashes of water on my cheek. Great. Now there is definitely no chance.

The calm after the storm — Pakistan Chowk

I breathed a sigh of relief when the clouds began to part.

A car pulled up and a group of university students from Indus Valley hurriedly joined us. Finally, our tour had began!

Setting out on the peaceful streets of the Old Town.

We stopped and observed the Sarnagati Building first, which is located at Pakistan Chowk. I especially liked the red sandstone exterior and the almost 3D like effect the building has.

It is particularly interesting because it was home to many cultural and media based ventures. Amongst them was the British Council library in the 1960s, an art studio for emerging artists, a printing press and publishing house. Unfortunately, this beautiful building is not operational today.

The Sarnagati building was a hub for medical and science students, yet now it stands abandoned.

Right across from the Sarnagati was an interesting structure. As we approached it, our guide told us it was a water trough for horses. During the colonial era, the main means of transportation for the elite class was horse carriages.

While observing this trough, I was trying to envision the rich historical past. The roads must have looked so different and clean. It made me wish that this history was preserved and we could go back to the days of being called the “Paris of Asia”.

Sadly, the water troughs haven’t been treasured as a part of our heritage and most of them no longer exist.

As we continued walking, I couldn’t help but feel how amazingly liberating it felt. This was the first time I had walked on the streets of Karachi.

I think the best part about it was that I didn’t feel that level of insecurity creeping up on me. I was comfortably using my iPhone to take pictures and carrying around my bulky DSLR. For the first time as a TCK who hadn’t lived in Karachi up until recently, I felt secure and at home.

The next beautiful architectural marvel we saw was the Mendoza Building on Aram Bagh Road. The style, arches and columns were so unique compared to other buildings.

I could almost picture someone coming out of one of the jharoka style balconies and gazing out at the view on a warm summers day. It was sad to see its dilapidated and abandoned state.

Fortunately, this gem is on the 2018 World Monument Watch List, which will hopefully lead to action being taken for its conservation.

The crumbling structure still stands out with its unique features.
The building is crowded between an abandoned girls dormitory and apartment building.

Most of the tailay were just beginning to be set up for the Sunday flea market and preparations for breakfast were being made. It was especially unusual for me to see so many people walking!

Amidst the differences and sectarian violence, I was pleasantly surprised by how the community here was so close-knit. The area has mainly been occupied by the Bohri, Memon and Parsi communities who all live in unison together.

Some streets are almost like a painting, this area has stood the test of time.
This striking blue door stood out amidst the dull structures.
This street was buzzing with activity with shop keepers setting up their stalls.

The sun was beginning to come out and we stopped for a quick glass of sugarcane juice. My friend described it as though a burst of energy had just run through her brain.

She was definitely more adventurous than I was, my poor TCK stomach could hardly digest food from outside. I just hadn’t developed that steely level of immunity or maybe I wasn’t willing to give it a chance!

My friend enjoying her refreshing glass of fresh sugarcane juice.

Amidst the colonial era buildings, I saw traces of modern style architecture. This building particularly had the brise soleil (sun breaker) feature that was popularized by Swiss architect Le Corbusier. This outer covering on the facade was an effective way to block sunlight while also having an aesthetically pleasing design.

Usually found in countries with a warm climate, this feature reminded me of the mashrabiya I had seen in homes in Jeddah.

Apart from admiring the architecture, it was unfortunate to see how some of these buildings were not being taken care of.

Some of them were in a crumbling state, left to be abandoned and sometimes even subject to vandalism. I was hopeful that this heritage walk would highlight the importance of conservation.

There are traces of these unusual arches buried around the Old Town. 

Sadly, there was still alot of poverty seen in this side of the city as well. But one thing that really stood out to me was the communal feeling.

Everyone was so friendly and several people from the Bohri community stopped to ask us where we were from. It gave me a sense of warmth and realization that amidst this Old Town, there were incredibly down to earth people who led such simple lives.

It is heartbreaking to see the living conditions of some people on the streets.

Amidst all the sites we saw, I couldn’t help but think how this city had evolved so much. From a developing port city to an overpopulated trading center and business hub, the nature of Karachi is unlike others.

It is now at this stage of vulnerability because of all the different challenges it’s consumed with. Almost like a vessel, it needs to be filled again with a renewed sense of culture and appreciation of the remarkable history it has witnessed.

Every city has two faces that are open for you to discover them.

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